Dear Neil: I’ve been involved with a man for the past several months who seems to have trouble sustaining erotic arousal with me. I’m 25 and still a virgin. He’s 31 and experienced. We have an amazingly intense emotional connection. I know he finds me physically attractive and thinks very highly of me, and yet he is strangely reluctant to touch me below the waist, and he doesn’t stay aroused when I touch him. What is this I’m dealing with? Performance anxiety? Madonna-whore complex? I just don’t understand, and I would be grateful if you could guide me about what I should do about it.
Still Virgin in Perth, Australia
Dear Perth: Why don’t you ask him? This could be performance anxiety—that is common for males who know that they have to rise to the occasion, but sometimes their bodies won’t cooperate. This could be that he is feeling unfaithful to someone else, even someone he is no longer with. It could also be that he isn’t as attracted to you as you believe, or that he is attracted to a different body type or a different gender. Possibly he feels so close to you that he finds lovemaking a bit threatening—and that he fears getting any closer to you than he already is. One other possibility is that he sees you as so appealing and sexually desirable that he simply doesn’t feel worthy of you. All of those might play a role in causing him to sexually retreat from you.
He is very young to be having medically based erectile dysfunction, but it is certainly possible. If that is the issue, there are a variety of medications and treatments that could be prescribed for him. And it could be that he isn’t as experienced as you think he is, and as a result is freezing up because he’s afraid or intimidated to act. It is not very common (and is usually related to strict religious upbringing), but another possibility is that he doesn’t want to despoil a virgin—what you accurately labeled as the Madonna-whore complex. That is where he would categorize women into two distinct groups: either saintly or “whore-like.” If that is driving his behavior, you have a right to know about it and then decide if you want to deal with this.
But this is all pure speculation. Why don’t you get him talking about what’s going on for him? You might ask: “What do you suppose is happening to you sexually around me? You appear to find me attractive and desirable, yet you pull back from me. Why do you think you’re doing that? What would you like me to do when that happens? Is there something I could do that would help you overcome your reluctance with me? What do you make of what is happening between us sexually, and how do you feel about it?”
It should be acknowledged that this is a most sensitive issue for both of you. You would be pretty normal if you thought this had to do with your desirability or how attractive you were, but it probably isn’t. This is most likely his inability to function, and it is not a reflection on you or how appealing you are. For him, this is no doubt highly embarrassing. He is clearly awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of a willing partner.
You are a wonderful lady to stay with him until he gets this figured out, and you are entitled to an open and honest conversation about what this is and what the two of you are going to do about it. But don’t let him off the hook. Any conversation that attempts to dismiss or avoid this issue is not fair to you. You want to know what is going on—and how the two of you are going to resolve it.